A Collaborative Lens on Sport Conflict


A Collaborative Lens on Sport Conflict

We often see media reports on the consequences of conflict in sport: complaints buried or unresolved, coaches terminated, athletes walking away... Recent attention on four-time grand slam champion Naomi Osaka’s withdrawal from the tennis French Open exemplifies some common themes. Ahead of competition, Osaka announced that she would not meet with press during the tournament for reasons of mental health. Instead of seeking a solution, tournament organizers treated Osaka’s announcement as a threat, a common approach when athletes step outside of the box. She was forced to choose between disobeying, or facing the media, something she had made clear was not healthy for her. The organizers’ “all or nothing” thinking reflected old institutions built on an adversarial model of competition, desperate for control and uninterested in the human cost. Sadly, the result was that Osaka did not compete and the world missed an opportunity to watch her in action.

Conflict occurs at all levels of sport from professional and high-performance to the community-based programs we take our kids to every day. This conflict ranges from serious misconduct, including sexual abuse and bullying, to disputes about how a sporting event is administered or whether a coach’s feedback is productive.

In Canada, numerous initiatives have aimed at addressing abuse in sport, including anti-harassment policy and training requirements for national sports organizations, a helpline, and the Universal Code of Conduct to Prevent and Address Maltreatment in Sport. A third-party investigation unit, operated by Sport Dispute Resolution Centre of Canada, was established to assist federally-funded sport organizations to handle complaints and host rosters of Canadian mediators, arbitrators, and investigators.

Despite these strategies, research, along with what we see at our local fields and arenas, tells us there are gaps in the systems to resolve and/or prevent conflict in sport. In 2019, AthletesCAN and University of Toronto surveyed more than 1,000 current and former national team members: one-fifth said they had been victims of “psychological” harm, usually by a coach. Although most attention to date has focused on sexual abuse, findings indicate that athletes experience psychological abuse and neglect to a far greater extent.

What is the missing piece in addressing ongoing concerns identified in the AthletesCAN survey? Why do some athletes drop out of sport and report harmful experiences? What process will help athletes and coaches who want to continue to work together, but don’t agree on communication style? Why was Osaka, one of the most talented players in the tennis world, met with such opposition when she raised concerns about her mental health?

Currently, conflict resolution in sport is deeply influenced by a competitive worldview which brings a “win-lose” lens to matters on or off the field. The result is that concerns are not heard; mechanisms for reporting and investigating allegations of serious misconduct leave no space for collaborative resolution when other kinds of conflict occur. Despite efforts to address abuse, the culture of sport continues to block opportunities for collaborative problem-solving.

Until the culture shifts, we will continue to see antiquated coaching practices, athletes who are punished for raising concerns, and who eventually drop out or are “spit out” as non-compliant. While this dynamic is highlighted in stories about top athletes on the world stage, we must also ask: what is the impact of this culture on our children at a recreational level?

As the sport world adopts more collaborative approaches to conflict, there will be greater opportunities for coaches, administrators, and sport organizations to hear feedback and concerns before issues escalate and become the next media story. I’m optimistic that within a collaborative conflict framework, a solution would have been achieved at the French Open, and we all would have had the opportunity to watch Osaka, one of sport’s brightest stars.